The most frequently asked question by gardeners after moving to our Southwest Florida location is "how do you grow tomatoes" - especially after a few visits tasting the offerings of the local supermarkets. They have to buy and sell what they can get year around and that limits the quality of this beautiful and popular fruit.
Yes, the tomato is a fruit, even though we use it mostly as a vegetable. We can blame that on a law that was made way back in 1893. Taxes were high on vegetables coming into America and so an enterprising importer persuaded politicians to declare the tomato a fruit, bypassing the 10 percent tariff tax. Not that anyone really cares nowadays, although it does show us that way back then government and politics were already busy manipulating the world.
This is the year to celebrate Ponce De Leon finding America as he roamed the world looking for the fountain of youth, which he never really found. He almost missed us and landed in South Carolina, and he somehow missed the tomatoes.
To obtain an historical time line please use other means besides this column.
Let's just say the Aztecs were growing this tasty plant in 500 B.C. and called them Xitomati, meaning a plump thing with a navel. Well they had that correct, a whole culture has since grown up in support of that basic concept.
Every country has its own version of the plant's name. The Italian name is pomodoro, apple of gold. Much more appealing. In Mexico, tomatil.
Botanically the tomato is a fruit because the ovary, together with its seeds, is part of a flowering plant. Science is not always pleasing in describing our foods as they unravel its miracles
Classifying this dear fruit ran into some problems.
Linnaeus , a botinist, in 1753 classified it as genus Soianum Lycopersicum. In 1768 it was changed but did not fit the proper classification protocol so technically, after new genetic evidence, Linnaeus was declared to be correct.
I am only including this information for those of you who are more interested in reading about plant classifications, than actually going out and growing something.
I should mention that the tomato is in the nightshade family along with the potato and was considered dangerous in those days.
There is a danger of some toxicity with tomatoes. Do NOT eat the leaves or any other part of the plant that is not a tomato. Do not make tea of the leaves and the leaves can be very toxic to dogs - no chewing. The leaves are definitely not tasty at all. The problem is mainly a small amount of toxic alkaloids, fans of fried green tomatoes can relax; the cooking will deplete any toxic concern.
In 2006 there was a salmonella disease breakout. And tomatoes were recalled, however it was also decided that jalapeno and serrano peppers were also causing some of that problem. Tomatoes are safe to eat right of the vine, IF NOT SPRAYED. All the reason for us to grow our own or visit the local Farmers Market instead of depending on foods brought in from across the country and out of the country.
The tomato has a low sugar content, compared to other fruits, however once you have tasted a brilliant red juicy fruit from your garden or a roadside stand, you will always be searching for more.
I am a Michigan transplant, via South Jersey, and our family grew our own tomatoes. We only grew children in Jersey, however we had fields and fields of sweet tomatoes all around and plenty of farmers markets and stands.
I started with the tomatoes as soon as we arrived here. Yes, it was strange to me to be setting out tomatoes in December. I also settled for container grown plants. That turned out to be a good decision after I found out about the hungry little nematodes in our soil.
There are dozens of types of tomatoes to grow here, and several types of plants that they grow on. The tomato now comes in tiny cherry size; to small size; to Roma (small oblong) to be used for sauces as well as salads; the bigger Hybrid sizes, such as Big Boy; and the popular heirloom series. The heirlooms come in a wide varity of colors and crinkled looking shapes. They are considered sweeter than the average tomato. They look great just setting in a bowl on the table.
I myself have had problems with them but have friends who swear by them. I guess I am just an old farmer's daughter and resisting the "new" look. They have a longer life history than mine.
The plants can grow six feet tall as a vine and will need to be staked or have a tomato cage helping to contain them. There are shorter more busy types.
You need to read the tags on the plants you buy. There are hints on them that will help you find a plant that is resistant to the nematodes, and various other problems.
There are plants that will produce over and over until the plant itself is so frail you have to cut it and some that will bloom one time and that is the end. Although in Florida anything that grows may decide to outlive its designated life span.
More about all of that and how to get them started well next column.
You can grow them in the soil, in the big black plastic container pots, in bags and in no soil, the hydroponic way. So many choices.
It is a bit hot right now so if you have just planted some don't worry they will survive; just take longer with a little extra care. You do not want organic or fertilizer right at the beginning but good soil and good drainage. Look around and check out who has what. Make sure plants do not look too dry the day you buy them and they should be tall and firm. I set mine in some morning shade the first couple of days and water and drain well.
Check out some bell pepper plants they do extremely well here. You can save a bit of money growing those at home. They are even easier than tomatoes. More on planting and caring for tomatoes next week.
I do want to mention a beautiful wall of magenta bougainvillea that is about 20 feet tall and over 100 feet long that you can drive by and admire. This wall of bloom is over at the Edison Ford Estates on McGregor Boulevard.
You can, of course, drive in and park free and walk to the north side of the main buildings, or just drive slowly by. It is amazing. It should be in bloom for a couple more weeks.
Happy gardening until we meet again.
H.I. Jean Shields is a past president of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.